Personal information can be a touchy subject. Who's holding data on you, and what do they know? What are they using it for? Should you do something about it, and if so what? These are increasingly common questions, but getting the answers can take more time, effort or expertise than many of us have to spare.
A new company that's looking to change that is garlik, which is a startup run by several of the founders of internet bank Egg. It's beta testing a service that claims to help "discover and manage what's out there in the digital world about you and your family", but what does this mean, and how will it work? I talked to garlik CEO Tom Ilube to find out.
garlik began when Ilube and Egg co-founder Mike Harris got together last year to figure out what to do next. The research process apparently included spending six months picking the brains of computer-science experts at universities around the UK - which sounds like marvellous fun - before settling on The Big Idea.
"It had to be a consumer play, and something of real scale, or at least intention to achieve real scale," says Ilube. "Essentially something that would shape or change the industry it's in. And the rate of take-up of broadband caught our attention. It's gone way beyond the early adopters now, to people like my mum, my uncle, the lady in the office..."
The pair latched onto the fact that there was now a large group of mainstream consumers who were becoming much more active web users - not in terms of blogging, using Skype or hanging out on MySpace - but more activities like online shopping and internet banking. The pair also noticed that a lot of tech startups were ignoring these users in favour of the MySpace people and bloggers.
So, there are lots of non-geeks with broadband. How do you turn that into a business? Ilube and Harris spent last summer running focus groups to find out what these users care about. According to Ilube, personal information was high on the list.
"It's not the first thing they mention, and if you ask them what they think of identity management, you'll get blank faces," he says. "But before you know it, they're talking about their information online: what happens if someone gets their credit card details or steals their passwords. And if you tell them that their home address is available for everyone to see on the Internet, they'll fall off their chairs in outrage!"
In many cases, it's a negative thing - people are worried about these issues. However, Ilube says a lot of people were also aware of the benefits of having selected personal information available online, particularly when it comes to their jobs.
"We decided to create a large-scale consumer-facing company that will help people understand what's out there about them and how to manage it," says Ilube. Initially, this will boil down to a service that rounds up all the publicly-accessible data on a person, including their credit file, but also the records kept by private companies.
"The data protection laws are quite powerful," says Ilube. "I have the right to ask any company in the UK what information it has on me, and if they don't respond within 40 days, I can take them to the Information Commissioner."
It sounds like garlik will be doing this on consumers' behalf, which could pose a big problem for many companies who, despite the legislation, aren't set up to deal with lots of these 'subject access requests'. Ilube says that many companies deal with these requests on a case by case process. Surely that means that if garlik takes off, it could paralyse Corporate Britain in a matter of days?!
"It's certainly true that in many cases, if just 10% of someone's customers made a request I don't know what they'd do!" he says. "We're starting to talk to companies about this, telling them that consumers are likely to start making more of these requests, and that we'll be encouraging it. We don't want to cause companies a huge problem, we just want consumers to be able to exercise their rights."
Ilube says that garlik isn't intending to try and be a campaign group, pointing out that existing organisations like Privacy International are doing that job well. However, garlik will take a firm stance in terms of being "on the side" of consumers rather than companies, which he says is a commercial rather than a moral decision.
"We can't give consumers 100% power, but they will be more aware of what's out there on the net and in publicly available sources, and working through us we'll exercise their rights to get things changed, hidden or enhanced. If we're able to do it, we will. If we're not, we'll tell people why not."
Isn't this a bit scaremongering though, trying to sell people a service by frightening them with tales of identity theft and nefarious corporations tracking their every move? Ilube insists not, although he has stern words for the insurance companies who've been hawking identity theft policies on this basis. So why is garlik any different?
"It's difficult to sell a service to people who you've just scared the hell out of," he says. "We need to convince people that if the digital world is part of their life, then looking after their personal information is as natural as looking after their money or their health. Your personal information is an important asset, so you ought to be aware of that asset, look after it, and maybe even leverage it to your advantage."
When garlik launches in October, it'll be with a single easy-to-grasp product, much in the same way Egg started with a simple online savings account, and later diversified. My bet's on some kind of 'Get a file on what data x, y and z companies are holding on you' service, although Ilube says garlik is still researching 4-5 ideas with its beta testers - you can still sign up here to take part.
But how big could this service really be? Are there enough people who care enough about these issues that they're willing to pay for whatever service garlik does launch?
"We think there's 4-5 million people in the UK for whom this is a significant and growing concern," says Ilube. "If you have the right proposition so that 10-30% of them will buy it, that gets to you to a business with between 0.5 and two million consumers. In the UK, that's an interesting business, and more so if you can roll it out to other countries like the US."
I wonder if big businesses will try to get involved too. After all, if you're a huge supermarket chain with a database of information on consumers, wouldn't you want to work with someone like garlik to check that you've got accurate information on people, and change it if not?
"If our consumer asks us to take action to correct some data, we'd support that," says Ilube. "But if a company says to us 'Look, can you help us tidy up our database?', we'd say that's nothing to do with us. We don't work for companies, we work for the consumer. We've taken a very specific and clear position, even if it does cut off some commercial opportunities."
However, he's sure other companies will come along who will, forming part of what Ilube calls "an evolving ecology of personal information". Come October, we'll get the first glimpse of how garlik will fit into this new world, and how many consumers are interested.